Dropping out of high school today is to your societal health what smoking is to your physical health


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Summer 2006 | Number 46
The Achievement Gap: Keeping Students in School

Closing the Gap: Keeping Students in School

Anne Nelson

Third in a Series

The nation's dropout problem has been making national headlines with more and more frequency and more and more urgency. Although certainly not a new problem, the failure to earn a high school diploma is receiving heightened attention because the causes and effects of dropping out have changed significantly. No longer is a dropout simply a young person who could not make the grade, who left school because of pregnancy, or who quit school because of drug addiction. According to a recent study, data suggest that most dropouts are “students who could have, and believe they could have, succeeded in school” (Bridgeland, DiJulio, & Morison, 2006, iii). Of even more concern is the fact that positive life outcomes for dropouts have changed significantly with the advancement of the information age. In short, it is becoming less and less likely that hard work alone is sufficient to bring a dropout into the middle class. Lacking basic computing skills, dropouts qualify only for low-end jobs, often without benefits, that forever trap them in the category of “working poor.”

This issue of Infobrief is the third in a series designed to examine factors contributing to the achievement gap and to identify best practices and policy implications to help close that gap. The first issue provided an overview and definition of the achievement gap, the second explored the achievement gap in early childhood education, and this issue focuses on the dropout rate and a powerful tool to combat it: student engagement.

How Many Kids?
Although dropout data vary according to the source and the method of accounting, statistics such as a one in three dropout rate overall, and one in two for Latinos and African Americans, are becoming more universally accepted (Thornburgh, 2006). Nationwide, more than half of students with disabilities fail to earn a high school diploma (Orfield, 2004). Researchers also agree that despite two decades of educational reform, including institutional change targeted toward student success, a steady dropout rate of approximately 30 percent remains (Barton, 2005). These estimates translate into alarming numbers nationwide: in 2003, 3.5 million young people ages 16–25 did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school (Bridgeland, DiJulio, & Morison, 2006).

Current controversy focuses on the gap between official government estimates of the dropout rates and those put forth by several independent organizations. Many researchers contend that the U.S. federal government's official source for dropout estimates is flawed, relying on two items in the U.S. Census Bureau's current population survey to place graduation rates at nearly 90 percent (Barton, 2005). This rate excludes transients and prisoners—populations that include large numbers of dropouts—but includes students who earn a GED but have not completed four years of high school. Other methods used to count graduates vary widely, and rates reported by school districts and states alike suffer from a number of validity problems, ranging from sloppy record keeping to a tendency to become “creative in reporting why students [are] no longer enrolled” (Barton, 2005, p. 7). Variation in reporting methods includes counting those who withdraw from school but indicate they plan to take the GED as graduates or eliminating students who leave due to pregnancy, military service, or incarceration from the official reports of dropout rates (Thornburgh, 2006). “The drive to improve student achievement in American schools has created a perverse incentive for schools to push out struggling students, ideally without having to count them as dropouts” (Landsberg, 2006, p. 7). Other critics (Barton, 2005; Bridgeland, DiJulio, & Morison, 2006) suggest that pressure from the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets further aggravates the problem.

A recent series in the Los Angeles Times profiled Birmingham High School's class of 2005—1,100 strong when they entered as 9th graders but sending only 521 across the stage four years later (Landsberg, 2006). Reporters from the Times tracked the missing students, finding that many were finishing their education elsewhere, either in a traditional school, vocational school, or alternative school. Some were working, others were taking care of family members, but many expressed hope of one day earning the diploma that life circumstances led them to abandon. Others, following a series of transfers, had simply disappeared. In the end, a school with the initial capability to hand out 1,100 diplomas awarded less than half that number.

Why Does It Matter?
Prior to the onset of the information age, high school dropouts still had a chance to find jobs in skilled labor and work their way into the middle class. By the mid-1970s, however, economists began to note a shift; high school dropouts and those with only a high school diploma began falling out of the middle class as their jobs moved into the computer sector or went overseas (Landsberg, 2006). Between 1971 and 2002, earnings for male workers without a diploma dropped 34.7 percent, and earnings for male workers with only a high school diploma dropped by 27.9 percent (Barton, 2005). Female earnings for both groups showed a less dramatic change, although female workers who dropped out did show a decline in earnings compared to their counterparts with a diploma or GED (Barton, 2005). As these statistics indicate, a high school diploma or GED alone is no longer sufficient to bridge the gap; indeed, the disparity between high school and college graduates has become nearly as striking as the disparity between those with a high school diploma and those without. High school graduates are four times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates, and even when high school graduates are working, college graduates earn 80 percent more (Olson, 2006).

A high school diploma is important to employers as well. Although a GED may be an acceptable substitute for a diploma in some fields, in others the difference in the social, as well as academic, learning process required to receive the diploma can make or break the student as an employee. High school graduates, notes the president of a Midwestern industrial plant, have “learned how to get along with people, some of whom they may not have liked so well, in order to achieve their goals” (Thornburgh, 2006, p. 40). A GED does not demonstrate that they have those skills, which are necessary for success in almost any work environment. Further, with the infusion of technology into the most mundane of manufacturing jobs, even the lowest-paid, entry-level worker must arrive on the job with some computing skills—skills one may not necessarily acquire in the pursuit of a GED.

In addition to calculating the professional outcomes, researchers have calculated the overall effects of dropping out. They estimate that dropouts are far more likely to become incarcerated, suffer poor health, and have shorter life spans than high school graduates (Martin & Halperin, 2006). “Dropping out of high school today is to your societal health what smoking is to your physical health, an indicator of a host of poor outcomes to follow, from low lifetime earnings to high incarceration rates to a high likelihood that your children will drop out of high school and start the cycle anew” (Thornburgh, 2006, p. 32).

Failing to get a high school diploma hurts not only the individual but the country as well. Dropouts cost billions in lost income taxes, increased medical costs, and use of public assistance (Martin & Halperin, 2006). Additionally, dropouts commit more crimes than graduates; one economist estimated that if graduation rates were just one percent higher, crimes would drop by 100,000 per year, with an associated cost savings to society of $1.4 billion per year (Moretti, 2005).

When Does It Start?
The factors that lead to dropping out are well documented in the literature, and most, if not all, are rooted in the earlier grades, well before a student reaches high school. Falling behind grade level in reading, failing a grade, unaddressed truancy, and what Bridgeland and colleagues (2006) refer to as a “gradual disengagement” from school all set the stage for failure well before students enter the 9th grade. Some stay in school until they “age out,” flailing away in a cycle of failure that maintains their enrollment but leaves them too deficient in credits to have any hope of graduating. In elementary and middle school, notes Landsberg, “year after year, students were allowed to fail upward, promoted despite a trail of Ds and Fs” (2006, p. 2). This trend abruptly halts in high school, where credits are awarded only for passing grades.